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The artistic director of Les Enfants Terribles discusses developing immersive theatre for an online audience


Oliver Lansley is the Artistic Director of Les Enfants Terribles Theatre Company, known for immersive productions such as Alice's Adventures Underground and Marvellous Imaginary Menagerie.

We spoke to him about his career and the company's latest production, Sherlock Holmes: An Online Adventure - The Case of the Hung Parliament.

Who inspired you most growing up?

Good question. I'm not sure. No one in my family is in any way connected to the world of theatre. My mum used to work in the NHS, and my dad was a builder. There's always been a bit of confusion about how I ended up in this industry!

In a way, I was very inspired by my drama teachers. One of them would be, Dave Morris, who taught me at my school, Oxted. He very much inspired me.

I also very much remember being inspired by a production of Shockheaded Peter years ago. I was absolutely blown away by the theatricality and creativity in that show. It just showed me a whole different type of theatre that was allowed to exist, and I think that had a huge impact on me.

Oliver Lansley
Photo Credit: Michael Leckie

How have you found this year?

It's been a constant challenge in so many ways. Trying to find a way to deal with it all has been difficult because the situation is constantly changing. If you think back to when we went into the first lockdown, I don't think anyone had any idea of how long that was going to go on for.

In the latter half of 2020, it felt like we were finding out way out of it, but then there was a second lockdown, and now we have a third one. This new strain, Tier 4 and everything else have made it really hard.

When it all started, it was impossible for us as a theatre company to know whether we would survive. It's hard to plan when you don't know if you're going to be shut down for three months, six months, nine months, or two years.

That's a difficult scenario to be in regardless of whether you're delaying or changing stuff. The biggest challenge is not really knowing what you're trying to adapt to. Saying that it's forced us as a company to look at everything in such a different way. As a result, it's led us to this show that we're talking about today!

How did Sherlock Holmes: An Online Adventure come about?

We did a live version of a similar thing a couple of years ago, The Game's Afoot, with Madame Tussauds. Then, earlier in lockdown, we wanted to do something to keep creating and keep creatives active. We ran a community project called Prism where people sent in videos, and we created something from that.

The show has become a culmination of those two things. The situation has also made us think about engagement with people a lot more. We will take a lot of lessons from this process as the world begins to open up again.

And you wrote this with Anthony Spargo? How do you find writing together?

Yes, Anthony and I have written a lot together. We wrote Alice's Adventures Underground together as well as The Game's Afoot, the previous Sherlock show, and Marvellous Imaginary Menagerie. We go way back. We actually went to school together!

We've found, for both of us, we particularly enjoy writing and developing immersive theatre shows. Rather than a conventional writing process where you're writing a story to tell an audience, the way you write is like going from writing a circle to a sphere.

You're writing in a 3D way, trying to accommodate your audience's experience and choices as well as the plot. It's like you're writing a show, but you don't know who the main character is. You're leaving a gap for the protagonist to cultivate something that will fit as well as possible for your audience when they appear.

How do you factor in multiple audience responses into your writing process?

Everyone who makes immersive theatre does it differently because it's still very much a new thing. For us, our focus comes from a background as a theatre and storytelling company.

The question we're asking ourselves is, "How do we use this medium in the most effective way to tell a story? And how do we make sure the story feels satisfying as an immersive show?"

When we made Alice's Adventures Underground, we wanted to audience to actually be Alice and go to Wonderland themselves. With Sherlock, we wanted the audience to be Sherlock. With that launchpad, you then create a world where the audience has to go and solve this crime.

You have to set up all the different suspects and clues. It's an exciting way of creating a story because you're creating this huge story full of all these little details.

You also have an awareness that every audience member is probably only going to connect with 30% of the clues. Everyone will form a different story from this huge palette of a story that you've crafted. It's certainly an interesting way of working.

What can we expect with Sherlock Holmes: An Online Adventure? We'll be solving The Case of the Hung Parliament, yes?

I've no idea where we got the inspiration for this, but essentially, someone is going around killing off politicians. The audience's job is to get in there before they strike again and murder the Prime Minister.

While we were working out stories, we thought we could try and deal with some of the day's issues without being too direct about it. We've written in, what we think is, lots of interesting threads which have been inspired by the year we've all just had, be it consciously or subconsciously.

We just wanted to create something with high stakes, intrigue, and excitement. That's why this story is about a killer picking off members of parliament. It felt like a fun and macabre story to tell.

How have you found the process of developing an immersive show for an online audience, given immersive theatre is so much about "being in the room"?

We spend a lot of time turning the limitations of a project into virtues. Because of everything that's happened, we've had to spend a lot more time online. We have this whole new language of online communication instead of being in the room with someone.

We've thought about how we can make that a positive about the show. In some ways, we found that having done the live Sherlock show, it's offered some really interesting new opportunities for doing things you couldn't do in an online show.

For example, in an online setting, we have more guidance on where people can go within an immersive space. We've tried to balance using live actors and recorded scenes to allow some freedom and control of the narrative.

The audience will be able to interrogate suspects live on Zoom, choosing what to ask them. We're also working with a company who do 3D filming so the audience will be able to go in and look around a 3D environment for clues.

We're trying to make the online experience as real and tangible as possible.

What do you think makes a good detective story?

A good story is one where you care about the narrative and the characters. You get hooked in; there's a mystery element, and there needs to be a satisfactory payoff. These are the same things that make most things work in terms of theatre.

With regards to the detective whodunnit genre, it is so well-loved because we are such curious creatures. As humans, we love that idea of being set a question and trying to figure out a problem. It piques our natural curiosity. It's why we love those whodunnit television programmes. We love being the one that figures out the mystery.

What we're hoping to do in the show, as much as possible, is allow the audience to be in that world and make their own decisions. We've created the world to be as big as possible, and the audience gets to be the detective.

They'll get to decide what experiments need to be done in the lab, who to interrogate, what clues to focus on and in the end, they get to decide who did it.

Why do you think we can't get enough at is it about Sherlock Holmes as a character we love?

Whenever a new Sherlock "thing" is announced, it's easy to think, "Surely, there can't be another version of this?" but it's so enduring. I think part of it is that we love seeing someone being brilliant at what they do. We love watching someone think outside the box and connecting these dots.

As a character, Sherlock Holmes is so popular because he's so brilliant and we love watching someone being brilliant. So many different versions of him (and her) have popped up on our television.

If you think about it, House is just Sherlock in another version. It's about someone who's absolutely brilliant and sees the world differently. We like to see how their brain works, e.g. linking a bit of mud on someone's shoe and linking it to a precise location.

We love seeing how Sherlock solves a crime. Generally, we find the process of how a crime is solved is often more interesting than the answer to the mystery itself. The fun of a whodunnit is usually not the answer; it's the journey. We love how Sherlock solves a crime.

Any advice for writers thinking of dipping their toe in the world of immersive theatre?

For me, the key with immersive theatre is to ask, "why do you want to tell the story as a piece of immersive theatre?"

The thing about immersive work is that you're putting the audience in that space. They will have a more physical response to the work.

Ask yourself, "why does the audience need to experience the world in that way? What fun can be had from being in that world?" Immersive theatre ultimately has to be a fun night out at the end of the day.

Immersive theatre is growing in popularity. It's easy just to say, "Oh, let's do everything immersive" but you need to ask yourself as a writer or a writing team if the world you want to create is a world that you actually want to visit and be a part of.

There are great stories that we enjoy reading or watching, but it doesn't always mean we want to be in those worlds. TV, theatre, and novels have done every well for a long time with that fourth wall intact. If you're going to smash down that wall, you need a good reason for doing so.

Any other projects you'd like to share with us?

We're working on our next big immersive show, the follow-up to Alice's Adventures Underground. At the moment we're constantly dodging back and forth on when it will be safe to plan the opening. We really hope that will come together for the end of 2021.

We've been planning this for years, and we're so excited about it. We're just waiting to get the green light, and we'll be able to enjoy the world in this kind of way again. Everyone should check out our website and social media to keep an eye out for those announcements.

It's such an uncertain time, isn't it?

Compared with other people, we're lucky we can keep working to this extent. There are so many in our industry who have been knocked for six. We're seeing more theatre companies and buildings falling by the wayside every day.

That brief period of eight days or so of optimism with the vaccine and theatres reopening followed by another sudden change in restrictions was horrible. So many people that have been trying to pivot, and be on the front foot of things. They have suffered the most because of the constant changes. They haven't been rewarded for their innovation.

It's a real shame because they're going out their way to try and keep things alive. Yet, they're still getting kicked in the guts for it. I hope that this year we'll be able to get back to doing what we love.

Who out of Moriarty, Sherlock, Watson would you want to spend lockdown with?

I think spending lockdown with Sherlock would be an absolute nightmare. Moriarty would be quite fun, but I'm sure something terrible would come out of it.

Watson would be a lovely lockdown companion. He'd clean up after himself and make you cups of tea. He'd just be good company in general, so I'd go for him too.

Why should people get a ticket for Sherlock Holmes: An Online Adventure??

I hope that what we are doing is providing people with the closest we can give them to enjoying a piece of interactive, immersive theatre from their homes. Unfortunately, it looks like we're going to be stuck in our homes a little bit longer, at least for the first part of 2021.

We want to give people an hour to escape from their homes and immerse themselves in a new world for a bit. It's Sherlock; it's classic!

The show is a chance to meet up with your friends and solve a crime. We've tried to make it as rich an experience as possible. It won't be just another online quiz!

Sherlock Holmes: An Online Adventure - The Case of the Hung Parliament available online from 27 January

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